Spanish ties offer refuge to Ukrainian refugees
As Ukrainian refugees fleeing bombs and bullets at home spread across Western Europe, few places they arrive feel as welcoming as a Spanish town known for years as ‘Little Ukraine’ .
Even before the arrival of Russian tanks in Ukraine last month, one in seven residents of Guissona was from this region. Guissona’s population more than doubled to around 7,500 and attracted a lot of immigrant labour, including Ukrainians, after a regional supermarket chain opened a distribution center nearby there. two decades.
More than 3.5 million people have already fled Russia’s war in Ukraine. Refugees find safe havens in small communities on the mainland where family and friends who have gone to seek work have put down roots.
In Guissona, the refugees are not content to stay with their relatives. Familiarity with the Ukrainian community has generated local sympathy for the plight of the refugees, and the Spaniards are also making room for them.
Miquel Julia, a local businessman, had an empty apartment for sale in the city. He says he has made many Ukrainian friends in recent years, and when a local cousin from a Ukrainian refugee family asked him for help, he handed over the apartment to them until they can return home safely.
He couldn’t turn a blind eye to the desperate refugees, he said.
“Bad times. Even more so when you see the state they arrive in and the stories they bring with them,” he said.
He has lent his apartment to Alona Hrykun, a 44-year-old seamstress from kyiv who recently arrived with her teenage daughter and grandson.
“My husband stayed in kyiv. He is an ambulance driver and helps move the wounded and sick during the invasion,” Hrykun said. “I’m so proud to be Ukrainian.”
Besides her husband, Hrykun left behind her mother and grandmother. Both were physically unable to make the approximately 2,500 kilometer (1,500 mile) journey from one end of Europe to the other.
Authorities in Guissona, in the Catalonia region of northeast Spain, have worked hard to prevent the creation of ghettos and to help foreign workers integrate into the community.
Many windows and balconies around the city, including at City Hall, are currently draped in Ukrainian flags and anti-war posters and banners.
More than 200 Ukrainian refugees have already arrived in Guissona. They are among some 25,000 people who have sought refuge in Spain.
“They get our full support. They feel protected,” says Maria Angels Lopez, a 67-year-old retiree from Guissona. “We all make the effort to help them and be with them. Be in solidarity with them.
Every day since the start of the war, dozens of locals and newly arrived refugees have been working in a warehouse in Guissona to fill boxes with food, medicine, clothes, blankets and toys to send to Ukraine.
Among the volunteers is Alina Slobodianiuk, who arrived here three days ago with her teenage son Maxim and daughter Yana.
They lived in the Ukrainian industrial city of Dnipro where she worked as a public relations specialist at a major Ukrainian bank. Slobodianiuk is divorced and her ex-husband is a soldier.
She left most of her family behind, including her parents, brother and sister. She says they are in contact every day, but her family has chosen to stay in hopes the war will end soon.
“It was not an easy decision. Because I love my country. I really like Ukraine,” Slobodianiuk said. “But I fear for my children.”
The Spanish government was one of the first to adopt special European Union measures in response to the wave of refugees.
Among the temporary measures, refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine receive temporary residence and work permits within 24 hours.
Refugees also have access to public health care, discounted medicine and free schooling, among other benefits.
Just over 115,000 Ukrainian citizens lived in Spain last year, according to the 2021 census.
The network of contacts through Ukrainian immigrants also works elsewhere in Europe.
In a village in the Italian Apennines, an hour’s drive from Rome, two Ukrainian women who fled with their young children have found peace through family ties and a local couple.
Tania, 30, and Katia, 33, fled the Ukrainian city of Lviv days after the outbreak of war, leaving their husbands behind. They are the daughter and daughter-in-law of Halyna, a Ukrainian caregiver who lives in the village of Belmonte Sabino.
Halyna used to look after the mother-in-law of a local hotel owner, and he now houses the two women and their children.
“We are really happy. The Italian people have a big heart,” said Tania, who said she was grateful to the people of Belmonte Sabino, whom they all now consider friends.
The Ukrainian women asked that their surname not be used, for fear of reprisals against their families in their country of origin.
Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.